Education as Re-imagination: Recovering a Communion of Love amidst secular fragmentation

By Jared Schumacher

This post is the first in a series that the Theological Anthropology Blog is hosting on the topic of love and education.  Portions of these posts were first delivered at an event organized by The Leuven Newman Society, titled “Faith and Reason at the University and Beyond: The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life.


In an oration titled “The Man of Letters in the Modern World”, the Catholic author and intellectual Allen Tate took up the very question of our panel more than a half-century ago and provided an answer that I believe is no less compelling today, despite the historical ditch that separates us from him.  I would like briefly to review that answer and explain why I find it of continued relevance today.

The Moral Obligation of the Man of Letters: Image and Standard

The question Tate sought to answer was articulated this way: “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate’s answer to the question is characteristically clear and straightforward.  The Man of Letters must do two things.  “He must do first what he has always done: he must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.”  These two tasks, the recreation of truthful images and the propagation of standards of judgment, Tate says constitute the “the moral obligation of the literary man.”

Modern Man: The Fragmented Self

The oration itself should be read as Tate’s own enactment of this moral obligation, as Tate both paints a verbal portrait of modern man and also communicates the standards necessary to judge that portrait, its beauties and its failings.  To the first task, Tate’s picture of humanity casts modern man as the inheritor of a divided anthropology descending primordially from Adam but more proximally from Descartes.  According to Tate, “[w]hen René Descartes isolated thought from man’s total being he isolated him from nature, including his own nature; and he divided man against himself.”  Thinking of human nature as essentially at war with itself––either in creating split personalities within one man or characterizing human society in toto as akin to a Hobbesian Leviathan in which man in a state of nature seeks to devour man–– creates what Tate calls an internal “psychic crisis”, which has political and social consequences. It is this crisis, this divided essence and consciousness descending from a conflicted vision of what man is, that is the hallmark of modernity on Tate’s reading.  Tate argues that at the political level, this anthropological vision can only “imitate[] Descartes' mechanized [understanding of] nature” and thus can only see human community as finally “a machine to be run efficiently”.  The improvement of man thus becomes synonymous with the management of a social machine. Tate rightly criticizes this modern, mechanical vision of society as Manichean in as much as it believes that society cannot finally be redeemed, only managed through greater technological and cultural ‘development’. 

Tate sees at the heart of this managerial strategy of the social machine the implicit logic of secularism, “the society that substitutes means for ends.” Modern man becomes that being trapped in what Charles Taylor has more recently called “the immanent frame”: his reason is only permitted free range in the end-less realm of technological development but dogmatically forbidden access to other transcendent ways of seeing the world.  Tate calls this “the dehumanized society of secularism”, “in which nobody [can] participate[] with his full humanity.”  He articulates what we might otherwise call the fragmented anthropology of modernity.

Politics Beyond Pragmatism and Resignation

In the face of this social condition, the circumspect man is seemingly offered two alternatives: to become what Tate calls “a politician”, a man of action, whose activity and political life become focused on the acquisition of greater means irrespective of final ends, or, alternatively, the man of letters but in a negative sense, what we today would call an ivory tower academic. The former adopts a political pragmatism, the latter a political resignation. Both are given over to the vision of society as an irredeemable machine. Tate sees clearly what this kind of social vision does to those who seek, against all odds, to retain some semblance of faith; they become Jansenist: “…disciples of Pascal, the merits of whose Redeemer were privately available but could not affect the operation of the power-state.”  They are pressured into privatizing their otherwise public life of faith, becoming slaves of compromise.

This is the fractured image of the man of Tate’s age, and I would argue that, to a great degree, it remains the man of our own.  “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate asks.  Notice that this is not the same as the fundamental question of ethics, Tolstoy’s and Lenin’s question, “What then shall we do?”  The important difference here is that the former question assumes concrete ends towards which to strive, the existence of an ideal or metaphysical image of man to become, while the later remains locked in the immanent frame, a call to activity without end, end-less activity.  Tate’s belief in the moral obligation of literary men stems from this metaphysical assumption that humanity can become something more than a well-oiled machine; it can become a communion in which the freedom of the love which is God abides. 

Communion of Love as Standard of Judgment

The standards of judgment that Tate says are the second part of the moral obligation of literary men arise from this difference.  His is not the political pragmatism of democratic or socialist stripe; his is not the mono-vision of a realm of immanently framed means; his is the ethos of a communion of love, his the sight which sees the old and compromised things passing away and the freedom of the children of God continually in advance.  Tate links these two ways of seeing to two linguistic communities, whose understandings of communication operate in different social imaginaries.  The one uses communication, the other participates in communion.  The one “communicates by means of sound over either wire or air”, the other “communicate[s] through love.”  Seeing love in this way––as the medium of reality, as the ontological grounding of all life and the sharing of that life––changes what we think it is possible to become as men and women in our postmodern age. 

Tate would let us know that it falls to the faithful to re-stir the social imagination to a form of sight which sees the possibility of love at all times, in all things; for as Tate concludes, “[t]he end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time.” Modern fragmentation and its postmodern fetishization discourage such a unified social vision.  That is why we must use the letters we have garnered from that Society beyond time to tell the story of these sacred things in time through love, which is to say again what W.H. Auden perspicaciously declared, “We must love one another or die.”

“Little Rock” and Religious Education

Johan Ardui & Pieter De Witte

Religious education seems problematic in our times. One of the reasons for this could be the alleged decrease of interest in religious matters in Europe and North America. It is possible, however, that the real challenge of religious education should be described in terms of theological anthropology. Education has often been related to the question of what it is to be and become human. If education is more than the acquisition of a set of skills that are useful for society’s smooth functioning, then it can only be defined as the formation of human beings. It is difficult to imagine education beyond the moulding of highly functional cogwheels in the production process without an explicit or implicit idea of what it is to be human, an idea about what is intrinsically (and not only functionally) valuable about human existence. The problem with religious education is that religious traditions have their own vague or more distinct anthropology. The challenge is how to reconcile (or rather: how to organize the clash between) anthropologies implied in contemporary educational practices and in religious traditions. One way this clash is visible in contemporary thinking about religious education is the call for more ‘relevant’ practices of religious education, with more emphasis on communication, identity formation and interreligious dialogue. This would prepare young people for their active participation in a pluralistic world. Sometimes it is felt, however, that such emphases prevent teachers from offering a comprehensive discussion of what religions have to say about human beings.


One way to start reflecting on this issue is to be inspired by some ideas of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Arendt was first of all a political thinker, but she also wrote on education. Her idea of political action converges with the dominant emphases (mentioned above) in large sections of the contemporary discourse on religious education (plurality and interaction between individuals). At the same time, Arendt’s view on education does not converge with the call for more politically relevant education. Quite to the contrary, Arendt believes that education will only prepare young people for a life in the polis if they are to a certain extent protected from the confusion and pressure of the public sphere. They first have to learn in a relatively untroubled atmosphere about the world and the way it is traditionally conceived. Only when education is to a certain extent ‘conservative’, children will later be able to change the world in unforeseeable ways. The paradoxality and sharpness of her ideas on education is perceptible in her essay on ‘Little Rock’.

The ‘Little Rock Crisis’ refers to the events in 1957 in a school in Arkansas. A group of African American students wanted to be enrolled in this all-white school and they met serious resistance. In the end the American government forced the group’s entrance into the school, even using military strength. Hannah Arendt wrote a challenging and even provocative essay on this issue. There is no doubt about Arendt’s support for racial desegregation. Yet, she questions the way education was used as a means to implement this desegregation.

Arendt writes:


“I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] felt called upon to be […] The picture looks like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world in which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?” (Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock)

Arendt’s point is clear. It is a highly dubious pedagogical procedure to pass on the problems adults cannot solve themselves to youngsters and children. Yet this is exactly what also happens today in our schools. Adults face the challenges of racial segregation, multiculturalism, inter-religious encounters, clashes between irreconcilable ideologies, political indifference, nationalism and many more. Often they are not able to settle such problems in the public sphere. What happens quite regularly is that such problems are more or less directly introduced in the classroom in order to prepare the future generation of citizens. Crucial skills and attitudes such as dialogue, tolerance and civic commitment are fostered for this purpose.

Arendt points out, in her Reflections on Little Rock as well as in her essay The Crisis in Education, that the result of this is undesirable in all respects. Adults do not assume their responsibility of dealing with these issues in the public sphere. Instead, they introduce the turmoil of politics in the place where newcomers should learn in relative serenity about the world. Adults live with the illusion that they are doing something about these challenges, while in fact they are excluding the possibility that the newcomers will ever be able to do something about them. For only the relative quiet of study and learning will allow young people to overcome the clichés and ideological catchphrases that dominate the public arena. Only when they are not exposed to the pressure of the life of the citizen will they be able to surmount banality and to really learn and think about realities like race, religion, culture, political history and national identity.

Perhaps Arendt’s reflections should inspire us in our thoughts on contemporary religious education. Many assumptions are at work in current discourses on religious education in a pluralistic world: “Religious education should be the place of interreligious dialogue”, “Religious education can help solving the problems related to religion in the public sphere”, or simply: “Religious education should foster religious tolerance”. Obvious as such assumptions may seem, they are highly questionable in a world where adults themselves do not succeed in speaking and acting thoughtfully when it comes to religion.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Dr. Johan Ardui teaches Catholic religion at the Teacher Training Program of the Limburg Catholic University College (LCUC, Belgium). Dr. Pieter De Witte is researcher at the LCUC and prison chaplain in the prison of Mechelen (Belgium). Both are involved in the research project (2012-2014) “A Plausible Course? In Search of a Teaching Methodology for Roman-Catholic Religion” at the LCUC.